Greeks to Geeks: What Plato Says About Bettering Your Team Culture

Greeks to Geeks: What Plato Says About Bettering Your Team Culture

In the third edition of HackerEarth’s flagship tech conference – Hire 10(1), our keynote speaker from Adobe, Mr. Mino Thomas, used a word I hadn’t heard before in tech recruiting circles.

Sanguine, he said. And then Choleric. Melancholic. Phlegmatic.

I almost wondered if I had been teleported to a physician’s office. Or to the home of a literati. Fragments flashed past my eyes: Keats’ Ode on Melancholy, even the title of Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love In The Times Of Cholera’.

Until my overthinking brain stopped at the memory of Hippocrates and his theory of human humors, or personalities.

Two and a half millennia later, we were now using the ancient basis for illness to describe employee personalities, and what we could do to better team culture in the workplace.

Hippocrates, who?

The Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460 BCE–370 BCE), also known as the Father of Modern Medicine, is often credited with developing the theory of the four humors which manifest as different personality types. These personality types were dependent on four bodily fluids – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm – and their influence on the body and its emotions. Along with the fluids, Hippocrates also postulated that humoral makeup and the resultant personality could also be influenced by geography in his treatise on Airs, Waters, and Places.


Also, read: Keeping Culture Alive: What Recruiters Can Do While Hiring Remotely


Interesting, hmmm….

Hippocrates’ work builds on Plato’s theories of human temperament that bridge modern personality psychology and philosophy. The vast repertoire of literature on modern psychology underlines one truth that Plato espoused: the human psyche is not unitary, but plural. Simultaneously, each of us has an innate set of values that form our core belief system. The interplay between our plural psyches or sub-egos, and our core set of values is what forms our individual personalities, and forms the basis of our neurodiversity in the community.

This is, of course, an overly simplified explanation of what philosophers both modern and old have struggled to understand. From Myers Briggs to the DISC system, there are numerous ways and tools to distill a personality into easily identifiable metrics.

Funnily enough, Hippocrates wasn’t even trying to understand personality types when he formed his theory. He was looking at the reasons behind human illness when he postulated that there are four different body fluids or ‘humors’ which govern how and when we fall sick. As a corollary to each, he also told us how each humor affected the psyche or temperament of a person.

Let’s understand these in detail.

Team culture and Human temperament types - Sanguine

Traits: Sanguine are known to be supremely energetic and excited and are usually highly interested in staying on the go. They are usually the most social of the lot and tend to make a lot of friends easily. On the flip side; they also tend to lose interest abruptly.

Human temperament types - Choleric

Traits: Think bull-headed and strong. Think hot-tempered, demanding, and authoritative. Choleric individuals are great at motivating co-workers but tend to do things their way. They are not easy to give instructions to, because they already have a plan mapped out and they think that is the best!

Human temperament types - Phlegmatic

Traits: If there’s one thing phlegmatic individuals are coughing up, it’s pearls of wisdom in the face of conflict! This personality type is loyal, focused, good at long-term projects, and the one that moves the team forward amidst small differences.

Human temperament types - Melancholic

Traits: If someday you hear Frank Sinatra in the office on a Monday morning, best believe your Plato-nically melancholic teamster is in their thinking zone. This personality type is usually placid and thoughtful and good at analyzing situations and thinking matters through. On the flip side, they can also be depressed and moody.

Woof! That’s good information. Now how does it help people managers exactly?

Struggling With Team Culture? Plato Can Help!
A person’s temperament is their permanent psychological nature which determines how they think, feel, and interact. It reflects in their decisions and behavior, so knowing these abilities and characteristics can help HR professionals – or engineering managers – when they are building teams, or creating policies for retention and robust team culture.

If you’re dealing with a Sanguine:

Sanguines are exuberant personalities with high energy and creative excellence. As an HR Manager, you can utilize these individuals to carry out tasks that require more creativity. Sanguines tend to become the heart of the crowd, which can make them good leaders and trendsetters. They also love new things and can be delegated with new short-term projects or assigned to work on cultivating team culture changes.

Dos: Sanguines can lose interest easily. Check in frequently to measure their level of investment in a project. Fuel them with constant appreciation.

Don’ts: Tasks that require organizing can be tough for sanguines. So can open-ended long-term projects. Make sure they are not setting their personal bar very high, and feeling disinterested as a result of not achieving more than their expectations.


Also, read: What Leadership Means To Us At HackerEarth


If you’re dealing with a Choleric:

Choleric personalities usually demonstrate a fair ability to work well around people and are open to taking challenges. Choleric can prove to be good leaders, too. They have the energy and motivation to take the task to completion and usually like to motivate their peers as well.

Dos: Be careful of their my-way-or-highway approach, especially when it comes to positioning cholerics in leadership positions. This personality type usually makes for dedicated employees, who like to see the job getting done regardless of teething issues. Hand them a management job that involves delegation and watch them flourish.

Don’ts: Cholerics are result oriented and meticulous, so don’t give them open-ended projects that will never convert into something actionable. Employees who fall under the choleric personality type can also come across as rude or brash since they like productive discussions instead of beating around the bush. Never set meetings without agendas 🙂

If you’re dealing with a Phlegmatic:

People with a phlegmatic personality can seem to be slower-paced when compared with other types. They are usually introverts, with very stable energy who do not seek adventure or the limelight. They can be observant but are usually hesitant to speak up, and generally avoid conflict or arguments.

Dos: Phlegmatics will not proactively take up leadership positions, so it’s up to people managers to push them toward glory. Otherwise, this personality type runs the risk of stagnating in the same role. Their stable energy is good for running long-term projects which they will not get bored of easily.

Don’ts: Phlegmatics tend to overlook small disputes in favor of the positive forward movement. This makes it easy to think they have no issues or complaints, so don’t fall into that trap. They also like to take frequent breaks and recharge, so don’t envy their ‘me’ time.

If you’re dealing with a Melancholic:

Despite what the name suggests, this personality type is not all doom and gloom! They are placid and thoughtful; analyzing everything and getting down to the brass tacks when need be. Their introverted behavior can make it hard for them to show up as leaders or ‘fun’ people, but make no mistake – they are team players and loyal to a fault.

Dos: Melancholics are very process-oriented and love details. They might find things a bit hard to handle if structure is not followed. Help the melancholics in your team build processes, and structure their projects so that they can excel in their roles.

Don’ts: Don’t leave them behind because they are introverted and love quiet. Also, do not mistake their loyalty for a lack of ambition and drive. These personality types can be slow, but they are definitely value-driven and a keeper!

The role of people managers in getting different personalities to work together

Post the pandemic, people managers have been facing new challenges in managing teams and team culture in remote settings. In this situation, it is even more vital that HR and Engineering managers understand different personality types and the temperaments of their teammates better than before. Doing so can open great avenues of resource management and building out a great team culture.

If you know your workforce well, it becomes easier to identify their strengths and weaknesses and create a plan to improve on them. Whether it is about improving productivity, team culture, or retaining an individual, understanding the whys of their personality can go a long way in helping people managers create stronger teams in the future.

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